Thursday, July 18, 2013

Learning from Roland Allen (and Paul) Today

It is over a century now since Roland Allen, a British former missionary to China published Missionary Methods: St Paul’s or Ours? (Download a free pdf of the book here: Not many books are still in print so long after their initial publication. So what makes it so significant? In this book, Allen compares Paul’s approach with those that were common at the turn of the 20th century. Contemporary methods were heavily influenced by colonial attitudes oftentimes manifesting a superior spirit towards native believers. There was a reluctance to give authority to local believers. Often it was felt that converts needed long periods of instruction before they were baptized and given membership of a church. Mission control over native churches was a given.

Although Allen was a High Churchman this does not seriously affect the expression of his missionary principles (‘Methods’ is actually a misleading title) except in perhaps one respect which we will note later. He was hot on the work of the Spirit in mission and the centrality of the Word and so his principles fit easily with a Reformed approach. He abhorred the pragmatic approach that focussed on the overwhelming difficulties in the way of establishing churches and believed that missions had failed because of obstacles that they had introduced.

Allen’s Argument


The chapters of Missionary Methods are logically arranged and seek one by one to answer the question, What was the reason for Paul’s success?
1.      Introduction.
2.      Strategic Points. Paul deliberately made the most of the administrative, linguistic, and cultural advantages available in the Roman system.
3.      Class. Paul did not have a strategy of approaching the elite of the societies he was reaching out to.
4.      Moral and Social Condition. The spiritual, moral and social condition of the first century Mediterranean world was just as corrupt as any society you will find on earth in the contemporary context. Paul had no advantage over the contemporary scene.
5.      Miracles. Paul’s miracles were significant but their significance must not be exaggerated.
6.      Finance. Allen makes three assertions concerning Paul’s use of money: (1) he did not seek financial help for himself; (2) he took no financial help to those to whom he preached; (3) he did not administer local church funds.
7.      The Substance of Paul’s Preaching. Allen draws out a number of lessons from Paul’s preaching: he was sensitive to his hearers; he didn’t blast them; he was no inclusivist; he preached the wrath of God; he did demand of them a moral and spiritual change and was not content to merely sow the seed; and finally he preached for individual change but also for social communion.
8.      The Teaching. Allen asserts that much contemporary mission work of his time teaches new believers to rely not on the Spirit but on the missionary.
9.      The Training of Candidates for Baptism and Ordination. Teaching followed baptism. This does not mean that the rite was carelessly administered. Allen concludes that Paul admitted only a few people of known reputation who showed real faith then handed over the admission procedure to those men. Likewise in the appointment of elders.
10.  Authority and Discipline. The churches were not dependent on the apostle but neither were they independent of him.
11.  Unity. The churches that Paul founded were one in spirit. Paul refused to make them one in form or structure. Allen also points out that nowhere does Paul “establish a priori tests of orthodoxy”.

In the last 3 chapters Allen seeks to apply the principles he has expounded to the contemporary situation. 



It is impossible in a blog post to do justice to Allen’s thought. However, it is important to see how Allen both built on previous work and paved the way for later thinking on contextualization. Clearly Allen was drawing on the work of a half-century previous by Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson with their call for churches in mission situations to become indigenous. Allen’s emphasis on the work of the Spirit is refreshing and shows up the lack of theological grounds for the overbearing nature of much missionary control, at least in the past—but one wonders about situations today too.

Allen asserts that the modern missionary, like Paul, should move on from planting a church much earlier than has traditionally been the case. He must leave the new church to the care of the Spirit. Here I think Allen takes a big risk. One can certainly sympathize with this approach. The security of the new church certainly does not depend on the presence of the missionary. Still today, so many years after Allen’s thinking was published missionaries are often found to be in a situation for decades, eventually leaving a stunted and impoverished church.

But should a missionary up and leave after just a few weeks or months? Here Allen surely overstates his case. Paul, after all, often had to leave a new church not by his own choice but because he was drummed out of town, such as at Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17). Furthermore, sometimes he did in fact choose to stay for a considerable time, as at Ephesus (Acts 19). Allen clearly has, here, misrepresented Paul. Allen’s theological contentment with leaving the new church so quickly must be found in his High Churchmanship. For Allen leaving a new church with the Sacraments for their nurture was enough. No evangelical will surely be content with that. The Lord’ commission included the injunction to teach the disciples to obey all that he had commanded them (Matt 28:20). That implies ongoing ministry, whether by the church planter or by those he has trained and equipped.

Nevertheless, Allen’s insistence that new believers have the Spirit and can therefore be confidently commended to the Lord and left without missionary control is a principle that is still as needed today as it was when he stated it.

The work of Roland Allen stands squarely in the stream of precursors to the contemporary missiological debates about contextualization. His work came out of reflection on his contemporary situation and almost a century later still deserves a careful reading.

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